It’s Past Time for Strong Accountability for Religious Sexual Predation
By Matthew Shallenberger | 18 February 2021 |
On February 11, Christianity Today published a devastating report on the investigation into Ravi Zacharias’ sexual misconduct. The investigation, commissioned by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), not only confirmed some of the existing allegations against Zacharias, but it also uncovered evidence that his sexual abuse was even more extensive than previously known. Investigators found evidence of multiple victims in the US and overseas. After searching some of his electronic devices, they also discovered hundreds of images of women, some of them nude, as young as in their 20s—decades younger than Zacharias. In addition, they found contact information for over 200 massage therapists in multiple countries: massage therapists were one of Zacharias’ main targets for sexual exploitation.
Among the most horrific details in the report:
One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.
She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
This is not only sexual abuse; it is spiritual abuse of the most depraved order. Zacharias used his influence as a well-known Christian author and speaker to gain access to victims, and then he manipulated them into silence using his spiritual authority and celebrity status. He was, in his telling, too big to fail, so his victims must keep his secrets or they would be harming Christianity itself.
The usual playbook
For those who are educated about abuse, none of this will come as a surprise. Whenever allegations of abuse are revealed, you can be reasonably sure that what lurks beneath the surface is even worse. Rarely is an abuser caught the first time they offend. By the time we learn about it, they have likely been offending for months or even years. (Zacharias’ pattern of abuse goes back more than ten years.)
His methods of manipulating both his victims and his enablers are also common. The use of shame to silence those who know what he is really like is a typical abuser tactic. When Lori Anne Thompson, one of the earliest victims to come forward publicly, told Zacharias that she could not keep his secrets any longer, and that she was going to tell her husband what Zacharias had done to her, he responded by threatening suicide.
And yet the investigation found that Zacharias continued preying on other women, asking them for nude photos even as he settled a lawsuit with the Thompsons and publicly denied their accusations. He continued this predatory behavior right up until a few months before he died. Can a leopard change its spots, or a sexual addict his ways?
Not, it seems, without accountability.
And here is where the story turns truly sad. The investigation commissioned by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) was unfortunately incomplete because investigators were hampered in their efforts by Zacharias’ estate, which is controlled by his widow. She has steadfastly refused to release Brad and Lori Anne Thompson from a nondisclosure agreement they signed with Zacharias, and she would not let investigators access some of Zacharias’ personal electronic devices. Perhaps she knew what they would find there.
Moreover, while it is good that RZIM undertook this investigation, it is important to remember that initially they, too, publicly denied the accounts of Zacharias’ accusers. They helped to cover for him long after the evidence was mounting that he was a sexual predator. In fact, as David French reports, when key staff members at RZIM asked hard questions about Zacharias’ unlikely defense against Thompson’s accusations, they were shut down by senior leaders.
RZIM now tries to claim that Zacharias went to great lengths to hide his predatory behavior from his family and his ministry. Yet they also admit:
“…we also recognize that in situations of prolonged abuse, there often exist significant structural, policy, and cultural problems. … We were trusted by our staff, our donors, and the public to mentor, oversee, and ensure the accountability of Ravi Zacharias, and in this we have failed.”
It strains credulity to imagine that Zacharias was able to carry on like this for years, and no one ever suspected anything. Odds are high that someone, perhaps even his wife, knew something, but they chose to remain silent. Indeed, as Julie Roys reported last month, employees at a spa where Zacharias was both part owner and frequent client complained about his sexually predaceous behavior. Zacharias’ business partner, Anurag Sharma, confronted him about it. This happened over a decade ago. And we are really supposed to believe that no one in RZIM’s leadership had even a hint that something was amiss? Even as Zacharias, during his frequent travels, routinely brought massage therapists to his hotel room (ostensibly for the treatment of chronic back pain), they suspected nothing? That seems highly implausible, to say the least.
Christian celebrity culture
The question is, if they knew something, why didn’t they do anything about it? Why did they cover for him for so long? David French notes that many leaders at RZIM felt their fates were linked with Zacharias’.
Christian ministries are populated by leadership teams who derive not just their paychecks but also their own public reputations from their affiliation with the famous founder. They’re admired in part because the founder is admired. They have influence in part because the founder has influence. When the founder fails, they lose more than a paycheck. There is powerful personal incentive to circle the wagons and to defend the ministry, even when that defense destroys lives.
This is the pitfall of Christian celebrity culture. When we put people on pedestals, they have so much farther to fall, and we fear to fall with them. Zacharias should be a cautionary tale for us. If our faith is tied too closely to the testimony of fallible human beings, when their reputation fails, our faith fails, too. Furthermore, Zacharias should remind us that charisma and eloquence are not indicators of spirituality or integrity. In fact, they may be masks to cover an appalling lack of moral character.
Celebrity culture is not the only problem, though. Angelique Rivers points out on Twitter that Christian celebrity culture didn’t turn Ravi Zacharias into an abuser. It simply provided him the means and opportunity to exploit women on a horrifying global scale. There are plenty of abusers who are not nearly as famous as Zacharias, but they’re able to exploit religious people in religious spaces just as easily. And they’ll continue abusing until we learn how to hold them accountable, and how to listen to survivors.
We need to be educated about abuse—to learn how abusers operate, how they manipulate everyone around them, how they exploit and then silence victims, how they train people to turn a blind eye to any incriminating evidence that surfaces. It’s not just victims who are groomed; enablers are groomed, too, to defend the abuser against any accusers. David French says that senior leaders at RZIM would tell concerned staff members, “You just don’t know Ravi as well as I know him. If you had spent as much time with him as I have, you wouldn’t have these concerns.”
As long as we continue to ignore survivors and take abusers at their word, with zero accountability, we’ll continue to make religious spaces ripe hunting grounds for predators. We’ll continue to enable the exploitation of countless victims. And we’ll continue to suffer the shame of having our most admired leaders disgraced by sordid revelations of immorality, misconduct, and abuse.
Our own predators
As I have read about the sad saga of Ravi Zacharias, I have been reminded of the predators that lurk within our own Adventist ranks. Recently we have been following the recurring saga of Samuel Pipim. Like Zacharias (though on a much smaller scale), Pipim built a global following of loyal fans through his writing and public speaking. And like Zacharias, Pipim hid a dark secret. After being exposed a decade ago, Pipim resigned from his positions and was eventually disfellowshipped and stripped of his credentials.
It wasn’t long, though, before Pipim began engineering his “comeback.” Barely a year after he was disfellowshipped, he was already planning his rebaptism in his home church in Michigan. The rebaptism had to be canceled, though, when new revelations of abuse came to light.
(Remember; if a predator has been caught doing it once, odds are high they’ve done it more than once.)
No matter. Pipim forged ahead. In 2014, he arranged a rebaptism in the Ohio Conference, officiated by a pastor from the Georgia-Cumberland Conference, on a Sabbath when the local church pastor was absent, against the warnings and cautions of both Michigan Conference and Georgia-Cumberland Conference leaders, and without the prior knowledge of Ohio Conference leaders. You can tell everything was on the up and up by the total transparency in the process. (Yes, that was deep sarcasm.)
Things have been fairly quiet for the past six and a half years. But then, in January of this year, the Ohio Conference released a statement announcing that Pipim had once again been disfellowshipped, and that conference leadership had investigated and discovered a pattern of abuse against at least 10 women, going back for almost three decades.
To this day, Pipim denies the accusations, and has tried to characterize his abuse as just a “moral fall.” (Though, even if we were to buy such an excuse, one rightly wonders how many times he can “fall” before he must admit that the bottom of the gutter is simply his chosen habitat.) Sadly, some people still believe him, despite the mounting evidence. The church where he was rebaptized (and later disfellowshipped, for the second time) has published a response to the Ohio Conference statement, wherein they deny key portions of the conference’s case against Pipim.
The Adventist church has so far avoided the public shame and spectacle that has surrounded Zacharias’ downfall because neither Pipim nor our denomination are as well-known. But it should not take public shame and spectacle to force us to do the right thing. The time may come when we are in the spotlight for our failure to listen to survivors and to hold abusers accountable. I pray that before that day comes, we will learn how to respond to abuse in a godly way. But I’ve seen too many cases like this get mishandled, swept under the rug, or glossed over for me to have any confidence that we’re close to achieving that goal. The Pipim case should be a warning for us that our systems are not currently equipped to deal with serial abusers who rely on spiritual manipulation to achieve their goals. Only time will tell if our leaders are listening.
One important step we could take is to fully implement the North American Division’s (NAD) E-87 policy, the portion of the NAD Working Policy on Sexual Ethics and Misconduct. One union that has already done this is the Lake Union Conference, through their Project Safe Church program. Initiated by survivor advocates Nicole Parker, Jennifer Schwirzer, and Sarah McDugal, with the help of Nicholas Miller, an attorney and seminary professor, Project Safe Church is a system for reporting and responding to cases of abuse. Parker describes the system this way:
…NAD policy states that unions should have concerned care practitioners available so that when people come forward with allegations of sexual abuse or assault by church employees or volunteers, they can be guided through the process of sharing their statements. Unions should also have a pool of sexual ethics committee members ready to evaluate the claims, gather more information if needed, and evaluate the allegations intelligently. The sexual ethics committees then make educated recommendations to church leaders on how to handle the situations.
Parker adds that the Adventist church is actually better positioned than most churches to implement a system like this. Our denominational structure would allow us to set it up fairly quickly. We could become a model for the rest of the Christian world on how to respond to abuse in religious organizations.
But what about our reputation?
But again, everything hinges on our willingness to listen to survivors and to hold abusers accountable. As long as we’re more invested in protecting our favorite leaders than we are in protecting the vulnerable and innocent, we won’t make any progress. The great irony, of course, is that trying to protect the reputation of the church by covering up abuse only backfires once the cover-up is exposed. In the end, we look even worse. Better to do the right thing from the start.
But our chief concern should not be protecting our reputation. It should be protecting the sheep from the wolves. God is perfectly capable of defending His church. He has sustained it these many years, in spite of our foolishness. What He has asked us to do is to feed His lambs. The church can survive the scandals of Ravi Zacharias and Samuel Pipim. But can the faith of those who were victimized by them and countless other predators who have hidden under the cloak of religiosity? Caring for these wounded souls should be our priority. And if we learn how to care well, we may just find that the reputation of the church is salvaged, too, not because we worked hard to protect an institution, but because we gave our all to protect people.
Abusers will always seek to exploit the good faith of religious people. But we can do our part to minimize the damage they inflict. We can learn how to listen to survivors and how to hold abusers accountable. The paths set before us should be clear by now. We see what happens when we cover up abuse, and what happens when we expose the deeds of darkness to the light. The choice of which path to take is ours. I pray that my church will choose the path of caring well, the path of listening to survivors and holding abusers accountable, the path of righteousness and truth.
Matthew Shallenberger is the associate pastor of the Ooltewah Adventist Church. He is a graduate of Southern Adventist University and the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He and his wife, Emmalee, have two boys—Malachi, age 6, and Eli, age 4. He is a musician, a writer, and an avid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. His favorite book of the Bible is 1 John.